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One-on-One with the Pirates
Thursday, December 22
, 2011

By Ron Cherubini

Pirates Push for Bountiful Recruiting Haul

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

Q&A with Donnie Kirkpatrick

ECU's recruiting coordinator shares what he can with Bonesville

View the Bonesville Mobile Alpha version of this page.

Donnie Kirkpatrick

While sitting home for the holidays was not what East Carolina expected this year, it seems that even after a disappointing campaign there can be some joy in the season, particularly when it comes to football recruiting.

With February 2012 right around the corner, and with it, National Signing Day, the Pirate Nation is paying very close attention to this year’s recruiting class and with good reason. While East Carolina's on-field performance left a lot to be desired, what also was on display for the fans was a host of talented young players, brought in largely by this staff, beginning to emerge.

Now, with the staff having experienced a full recruiting season, the coaching brain trust's collective recruiting abilities are now on center stage. And if recruiting coordinator and inside receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick’s opinion means anything, Pirate fans may get a taste of the big-time once the ink dries that day in February.

“Right now, if it ended today and we signed the kids who are currently committed and we sign the kids that we think — if signing day were today — would sign with us, it would be, by far, the best signing class in ECU history,” said Kirkpatrick. “And, it would not even be close. I have been here for seven years now, and this class is shaping up to be way beyond any class I have been part of (signing) here. We are competing with the bigger boys more effectively than ever.”

More on that down the page.

While in between road stops, Kirkpatrick talked about the coming of age of this staff in regards to recruiting; the impact of the BCS and AQ labels on the program's efforts; JUCOs, transfers and scholarship numbers; and few other interesting items in this sit-down phone call with Bonesville.

Rather than give you my opinions on what he had to say, I’ll just let the veteran Pirate coach tell you what he thinks.

One-on-One with Donnie Kirkpatrick

Bonesville (BVL): Can you describe the recruiting philosophy that Coach Ruffin McNeil has put in place in his program?

Coach Kirkpatrick (DK): You know, honestly, I can’t say that (the philosophy) is much different than it has been in the past in that it is still to start here in our backyard and then spread out from there. What we are trying to do is to recruit in-state and then to recruit up and down Interstate 95. Then we cover the eastern part of the United States from New Jersey, down to Washington, D.C., down through Virginia, into South Carolina, through Georgia and then down into Florida. So, it is kind of what we have always done, but I think we are more interested (than the previous staff) in spreading it out a little bit more now.

BVL: It is interesting that you sort of stressed New Jersey, D.C., and Florida. Can you elaborate a little on why those three seem to be underscored?

DK: We are trying to get back into Florida more with this staff and this class will show that most likely. Texas Tech recruits Florida, so our guys have relationships there. D.C. is nice because we already are pushing hard in Virginia and you get a lot of bang for your recruiting buck in place like D.C. It is only a half-day away from Greenville, so there is that aspect as well… those kids will come here. I should also have said Maryland, too, because we are making efforts there as well. And, we are also moving deeper into New Jersey. We are probably not making as much headway in New Jersey as I wish we were at this point, but we are moving that way.

BVL: That is an interesting point about Texas Tech hitting Florida hard and the relationships that this staff brings with them there. This staff has deep connections in the Southwest part of the country and in particular, Texas. Yet, aside from the quarterback they brought in the first season, there doesn’t seem to be an interest in leveraging those connections…is that by design?

DK: When Ruff came in with this staff, we had hard discussions about how we were going to recruit here. Remember, when they came in here, we were pretty much down to the last two weeks before signing day and were pretty much just trying to hold onto the class we had already. They did bring in the one quarterback from Houston — Shane Carden — and we scrambled to pick up a few other kids (to complete the 2009-10 class). The thing about Texas is this: The state is just so far away and there are just so many (colleges) there that the kids we would want would have to pass on before they got to us, that it makes it very tough to really go there. We’ve had a little dealing with a player here or there, but none of the coaches thought it would be worth our time to go out there because you wouldn’t be able to get the kids you really wanted. So then, we ask ourselves, ‘Is the kid that would come here going to be better than the kid you can get right here at home?’ And, the evaluations almost every time would say, ‘No.’ We all agreed that it is better to have the kid that is in his home environment than to take a chance on similarly-talented kid who would be way out of his natural element.

BVL: I definitely would like to get back to the topic of why kids make the choices they do, but back to the philosophy and recruiting approach for this staff. Can you talk a little bit about how you and the staff plan the recruiting for a given year?

DK: Sure. First, we recruit by areas. So, each assistant coach has designated areas. We each have a primary area and a secondary area and then a third area as well. The nine coaches are responsible for knowing the talent in each of their areas. You are always building relationships with the high school coaches and with the players down to probably their sophomore year. We also have alumni (as a source of information) and other people in certain areas. It is no mystery why the longer a staff stays together and the guys are in the same areas over time, there is more success. He has time to build those relationships and the relationships typically lead to do a better job recruiting. Second, we all meet and discuss what our needs are, initially, going into recruiting. I say initially because it is always changing and you are constantly throwing around ideas. You have kids moving around in positions, so a linebacker goes down to the line and a safety moves to linebacker and all of a sudden, your numbers change a little. You lose a guy to academics or an injury and the numbers change again. So, we are constantly meeting and discussing needs. Third, we evaluate the players in our areas, watch a lot of film, get out to a game when we can, and see a lot of them at our camps. We do so much of our evaluations by film now because it is really difficult to see the kids play that much, so you need more than what you see on the film. You need to know the level of competition you are seeing on the films. You see a kid on film and he is running away from everyone. You need to know if he is really that fast or are all the other kids that slow. Is he playing in a good league or a bad area for football? That is why we must know our areas well. And, that is why we need to have great relationships with the coaches and know who to listen to and who to talk to because it comes down to information.

BVL: Can you give me a little more of the nuts and bolts of the process below that approach?

DK: So, like I was describing, it starts with understanding your area. So for me, I am responsible for upper state South Carolina and I’ve got Charlotte all the way to Hendersonville and a little bit down there below Interstate 74, so since I know the talent there and our needs, I go out and then I bring back all the names of the talented kids in the my area. All the information I have goes into our recruiting database. Then, all of us come together and I give the information on each player to the position coaches to say, ‘I kind of like this kid or not this kid,” and then it goes to the coordinators for next level review. If they like the kid, then you all are in agreement and it goes up to Ruff for ultimate decision-making. Ruff puts the whole picture together… the grades, the character, all of those things after the staff has assessed and agreed on the talent. So, it goes through a number of stages before we offer a kid. That is why you really want to get to know the kid during the process.

BVL: You mentioned that you really got to know your needs, can you elaborate some more on that?

DK: Well…you are always trying to stay ahead of your roster a little bit, so this year, for example, we kind of said, ‘Ok, we are losing Michael Bowman as the only inside receiver that was a senior. But, all the other inside receivers are back.’ So you think, ‘Well, Michael’s gone, so we’ll sign one inside receiver.’ Now, you do that if you are on the numbers but you might already have been one below your number at the inside receiver position, so you sign two if you can. Or if you are already over one, you have to take from another area if you sign an inside receiver. But this year, for example, with Michael leaving, we are planning to sign one inside receiver. So, you know, we have a list of guys we like, you know a list like a 1-2-3 deal, and sometimes there are a lot of ties, three No. 2s, and then you say why you want one guy over the other and honestly, sometimes it is the guy who wants to come here the most and commits first who gets the scholarship. Below that, you look down there, you may identify a kid on your roster where you are like, ‘This kid, may not be here next year (academics) so you get one, but that one is a hard one to judge. This time of year, you know, they are in exams so you know you are going to get a better picture soon on academics before signing. That is why you have to have a longer list than what you are a recruiting for because if (we) have only two guys for one offer, you might end up without filling your needs.

BVL: You mentioned the database. What are the ways a player’s name finds its way to the database?

DK: It always starts with the high school coach. We still do that… we put a premium on the coach. It has gone through some changes nowadays with all the high school combines, but we always start with the coach’s recommendations. We do that still, but most do... but it has gone through some changes recently with all the (high school) combines, but we start with the coach’s recommendation. Next, after we go out and physically evaluate players we will add to the database. Then, of course, is the film evaluation for players, which is one of the main evaluations we do. We watch a lot of tape on these kids to evaluate them. You try to get out and see them all play before we sign them. We very seldom sign a kid we didn’t see play in person at least once. Size, speed, grades, and character — all factor into who goes into the database. All the (attributes) are important because a lot of kids will be about the same playing-wise, productivity-wise, so we have to make a decision to rank one above the another but it is a group effort... everyone has a say so and Ruff definitely has the final say on all players.

BVL: You hear stories about how a great player is found by a recruiter at a game or watching film of another guy, which I think might have even been the case with Ruff back in his day. Does this ever happen with this staff?

DK: It definitely happens, no doubt about it. But you hope that it is a younger kid when that happens because when you are really dong a good job recruiting, you aren’t just looking at the guy you are initially interested in, but all the guys in the film or in the game. For example, you might be getting ready to watch that one kid you want to sign for 2012, then you see the 2013 or 2014 kid and you say, ‘Wow! That kid stood out and you get back and put him in the database. But every now and then, it could be a kid in the same class and you come back and say this kid is a real player and that is probably a case where he has grown or matured or just got enough experience and jumped out from the year before. Or perhaps it is a kid who has transferred in. We are recruiting a kid right now — of course, I can’t say any names here — but there is a kid we are recruiting very, very hard and he had started with us looking at film of another kid. We called the coach about that kid and he said, ‘Look you probably are not going to have a shot at him, because Georgia and Alabama and alt these other schools are going to offer him since he jumped out, but hey, I got this other kid that I am playing out of position right now, but will be in the right position this season and you are really going to love this kid.’ So, we got on him and once we saw him play, he is now one of the No. 1s on our current board.

BVL: Sounds like it is a lot of that relationship building you were talking about. We talked about the staff coming in from Texas Tech and that Ruff laid out his philosophy on recruiting at ECU. How has the transition been for this staff knowing what you know about the importance of relationships with the local coaches (local meaning SC, NC, and VA)? Has youth served them well, or no?

DK: This staff has been great. They are a very good staff recruiting-wise and they love to get out and do it. Some of them are younger, yes, which a lot of people refer to, but youth in recruiting brings a lot of positives. You have to be able to get out there and go, go, go… and relating to the kid is very important and it is a strong asset we have on this staff. They have all been doing it enough to have picked up experience and they all have embraced their (assigned) areas. They were recruiting Florida (at Texas Tech) like I mentioned earlier, and they have some contacts there and that is part of why we are recruiting Florida harder again and that is something they brought into the picture. We are going to have a very good year in Florida this year if things finish the way they seem to be going there right now… using those Florida contacts well. But here in North Carolina, these guys have embraced this state and really like it. The HS coaches in this state really want those relationships and these guys have done a great job getting out there and building relationships. There is a lot of talent in this state, but you have to get out and find it. In Texas, they have a lot of big (high) schools — 5,000 students or more — and with that many students, you are going to have experienced head coaches and a lot more coaches on staff, and have a lot of good football teams and this staff was used to that. Here, the education system philosophy is to go the other direction. We have very few schools with more than 2,000 students, so the talent is much more spread out here. There are not as many super teams — we have some like Mallard Creek and Page year in and year out — but nothing like Dallas and Houston and those huge schools there. So these guys came in and learned the differences and just got after it… got out to all the coaches in their areas. This is a good recruiting staff here …it took about a year, though. I would say last year, we were OK… still probably not as good. But this year, we are seeing the benefits of them being around a little while and knowing the areas better, and having a chance to see juniors and recruit them as seniors.

BVL: We talked a bit earlier about why it is not worth it to go to Texas for the kids we can get there versus what we have here in our home turf. Can you talk a little more about some of those areas you sort of hit on and reasons behind them?

DK: Location is generally always in the top three reasons in every kid’s decision-making process. When you can drive to a school in a half day, it makes a world of difference rather than when you are past that point because of time on the road, being able to come see the kid play. When you get past that point and have to get on an airplane, it gets harder (to sign the kid) because of time and cost for those who want to see the kid play. There are some general exceptions… some areas where the kids sort of grow up understanding the distance thing a little more and that is why Florida is popular because most of the people in Florida are not from Florida or have a lot of family dispersed up to the northeast. …so many players leave Florida because there weren’t enough (college) schools there to support the number of players there, so the kids kind of assume they will travel. Now that has changed somewhat with Central Florida, South Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International, they are getting more schools there… but before, kids grew up knowing they would have to leave to play. So, we concentrate on places like D.C., where it is a half-day drive down. We do go up to New Jersey, but that is a quick day drive and the population there is pretty transient and with just Rutgers there, the kids are used to travel as well.

BVL: Does the half day philosophy also have to do with recruiting budgets?

DK: I would say that it really isn’t so much the budget is not really a factor when you were asking about the advantages that, say, North Carolina, has with such a large recruiting budget (~3 x ECU’s budget). Really, Ron, it is more a limited amount of time than it is the limited budget. We do a good job with our money and if we find a need for more, we sacrifice other things before our recruiting is sacrificed. But you also are ... always looking to get the most bang for your buck, which is why we recruit where we recruit. So, you go to areas that have more players. Like going to Atlanta, for example, gives you a ton for your buck because in one day, you’re going to see a lot of players as opposed to going to a remote area. That is why we have to put special emphasis on recruiting eastern N.C. especially, really, really hard, because we can drive to a lot of schools in a day. That is why if you look at, for example, the University of Michigan. They will recruit Charlotte, but they are not going to go over to Manteo because they have to fly into Raleigh, drive a car to Manteo, see one kid, drive back to Raleigh and that is all they can do in one day. One kid a day isn’t a big bang for the buck. That kind of thing weighs in more when you go far away from your base to recruit. We will fly down to Orlando because we get a lot of bang for our buck there. That is why we like D.C. so much… you get in there and see a bunch of players in a short period time.

BVL: You mentioned that information is the key. We see in the news about the Oregon scandal where they were allegedly paying a scouting service to influence players. Obviously that indicates the power of some of these services. So what is the staff’s position on the recruiting services like Rivals and Scout? Do they have any utility for recruiting?

DK: Well… information is never a bad thing so you are always just trying to find information on as many players as possible. You can’t cross the line and get guys working for your, but information helps. We continue to maintain the philosophy of keeping the high school coach as the central figure and go through him and that way you are always safe. Now, that philosophy works great here because East Carolina is a university that does have a lot high school coaches who have graduated from the university and are a great source for information. North Carolina and South Carolina are both states that I would say generally have been recruited this way by the in-state schools to where you almost have to do a great job maintaining and developing relationships with the high school coaches… hosting camps, going to see them on a regular basis, picking up the phone when they call, and, really, doing whatever you can to help them. It has been this way forever and forever going back to when Danny Ford, Mack Brown, and guys like that, who did it well... and when you don’t do that well, you are not going to have success in these states. There are other places where it probably is not like that. Even if a coach doesn’t have a player, we go to every high school in North Carolina at least once during the year. We know that if you wait until they have a player, you are not going to walk in that door with the right relationship and you are not going to have as much success. We do everything through the high school coach first.

BVL: And what about he junior college guys… is the plan the same thing?

DK: Your junior college guys come into play when you just have a real need because something happened… a guy didn’t develop or you look and you don’t have a left tackle… well you need to go get one then. We should always have a guy coming along in each position, but because of injuries or other unexpected issues, you just don’t have the guy and you go plug with a JUCO. We have relationships with certain junior colleges, but when you have a need to plug, you look everywhere for that guy.

BVL: ... from all accounts, this season could be a banner recruiting year head-to-head with the big AQ schools. What is happening there?

DK: I think there are several things that have helped us this year. Sometimes, other people’s misfortune can become your fortune and vice versa. Obviously, the (the prospect of NCAA sanctions) at North Carolina has helped us probably with all the uncertainty over there. And, I don’t want to name other schools by name, but there were some that were struggling some (at the start of the recruiting season) and that allowed us to come out strong and get in on a lot of players. Now, that doesn’t mean that these schools aren’t going to finish strong. We know, for example, that North Carolina is going to make a hard run at some of these kids. We have some kids they are going to want. There is one kid, for example, that we were in his house last night, and (North Carolina) is going to visit him tonight. They called him and told him they were going to come by today and they will have a better story for him today. They were not able to sell him very hard up until today (with the hiring of Larry Fedora.) They are going to compete hard for him and we know that it is hard to compete with them. I am sure they are going to make runs at other kids we feel like we are going to get, so we will see on those.

BVL: So, I have always been curious… how important is it that our recruits come from winning programs?

DK: You definitely like to recruit kids from winning programs… I’m not going to lie. But that is not to say that you don’t take kids who are in a horrible situation and there is nothing they can do about it because it is not like they can pick up and move. But there is something about kids from winning programs. Now for certain positions, it may matter a little more than others. For example, you really don’t like to take a quarterback from a losing program because the quarterback’s job is to win. Usually at the high school level if a quarterback is good enough to play at this level, he is going to win games for his team. It would be hard for a kid to have the ball that much not to be able to be a factor for his team. But nothing is100%...  you have to make those evaluations.

BVL: So, with less time to get out to the kids’ games and with film being good but not definitive, what would you say is the biggest recruiting tool you have in the arsenal?

DK: The camps are huge. The camps have now become the deal because you can’t go see these kids play enough. You can get a lot from film, but you really can’t tell, say, how tall a kid actually is or how fast or strong he is. All you know is that he is standing out on the film. Also, because recruiting has gotten so early, now you need to see them in your camps so you can get on them quicker. So now, yeah, the camps have become, by far, the No. 1 recruiting tool we have. We take more kids in our camps than any other (way). Especially when the kid goes to a camp early… it really helps identifying the players that are developing.

BVL: We’ve talked about the high school players and the JUCOs, but I am curious about the transfers that we seem to get every year or two. Can you talk about that process a bit?

DK: Well, it is different. You are talking about the kids coming from another four-year school, right? In many ways, it is a result of the recruiting done in the first place. It goes back to if the kid is coming from an area we recruit as a primary area, like (Hunter) Furr was. I recruited Hunter from Winston-Salem when he was coming out of high school and we tried to recruit him early there. But, he committed to UNC early. Even though he went to UNC, he knew us and was comfortable with us. We recruited a teammate of his — those types of things — so when his situation came down (decision to leave North Carolina) he remembered his experience with us and then he went to his high school coach who contacted me and it put it in motion. Now, these guys didn’t know him, but I did, so it was an easy process. Now, you take another scenario, with a guy like Adhem (Elsawi), who has been a good player for us. That was a deal where he went through Cary Godette. Adhem was a kid from New York — who we did not recruit — and had gone to Campbell University where he was playing there. Now, what he told us was that all the kids at Campbell always talked about going to ECU. When they weren’t playing they would come over and watch us play when we were home. He loved the area and decided he wanted to be at ECU. So, Adhem literally kind of just walked in the door (at the football offices). And when a guy that size walked in the door… the secretary called back and said, ‘There is a guy here who wants to talk to you guys and I think you are going to want to talk to him.’ We were like, ‘Yeah, come on back and let’s talk about your situation.’

Mostly, though, it is because of the previous recruiting experience that the kid had with us. We are dealing with a kid right now who we recruited and he should have come here — one of those guys we talked about earlier — no doubt we were the right place for him and he knew he should have come here. But, like a lot of kids, he just couldn’t turn down the bigger league. He got there and he was miserable. So, he called us and said, ‘You were right, can I transfer?’ He called his original recruiter and now we are starting that process. I have always preached — I have been here and at some of the 1-AA schools and we got a lot transfers there — some of the kids we would recruit them and couldn’t get them… we always said when they tell you, ‘No,’ don’t rant and rave about it because there is always the chance they will transfer and when they do, you want them to remember you. So we do that here, but it can be hard some time because of the choices some of these kids make, but we keep the relationship as strong as we can.

BVL: You mentioned that we can honestly tell our recruits that ECU is a viable and straight path to the NFL for those who are good enough, so it got me thinking… do we get any traction from the NFL guys? How about with their kids?

DK: We can’t use (former Pirates in the NFL) in a direct recruiting deal, but you sell that they are out there. East Carolina has a strong tradition of pros coming back and helping out. They come back on open dates in the NFL. David (Garrard), Jeff (Blake), C.J. Wilson, Jay Ross, Matt Dodge, last year, they come back. C.J. Wilson came and spoke to the team last year before a game and the other C.J. (Chris Johnson) has come to the bowl games and did his thing last year. Most of them have made videos talking about their experiences at East Carolina that we use. We use them and they help in every legal way possible.

BVL: And, the legacy kids… we do not seem to have good fortune with the old stars’ kids choosing the Pirates. Any hopes there?

DK: Here is the thing with that deal. Our pros ... have kids who are not just good players, but great players. We have not landed one of those kids yet, but you know what, we are meeting them, recruiting them where we can, and they like us. You know, Jeff Blake’s son Emory was a kid we were recruiting (under Skip Holtz’s staff) and, of course, the guys on this staff were recruiting him to Texas Tech, where he actually originally committed, so we all knew Emory well. But, then he goes and blows up and everyone is on him. He ended up there at Auburn and it is pretty tough to blame the kid (having already won a national title). And Robert (Jones) obviously had one of the top players in the country (no. 3 rated WR) who is going to Texas. We met Cayleb and Robert when they came in the spring and we had a great time with them. Honestly… if Cayleb hadn’t been that level of player, we would have had a good shot, I think. And then there is Stefon Adams’ kid out there (Ishmael) too… but their kids are turning out to be too darn good. If they could have been like Jeff and Robert or Stefan — kind of hidden out there — then maybe we could have gotten in on them, but they are all like, ‘Wow good.’ Even though we are not getting their kids, I have to say that Jeff and Robert have really been involved in trying to further the program, even trying to help — within legal limits — in our recruiting of their kids’ teammates. They all represent our program and that paves the road for us recruiting in the future.

BV: Last question, Coach. It is widely understood that we have less scholarships this season. Are we looking at a short list this year?

DK: Well, we do have a slightly lower number this year, but like we talked about earlier, those numbers continue to change, so we really won’t know for sure till we sign them. You know, some kids don’t come back for various reasons and you lose others for other reasons which you hope are not negative reasons — though it happens — but the numbers do change. We have seen our numbers change already this year a little bit. It will likely be less than a full class, but bigger than originally thought.

I just want to say, again, that in the seven years I have been here recruiting, this is by far the best year we have had. We are not coming off our best year, but sometimes that gives you better results because kids are thinking there is a need and they can play earlier. So far, the recruiting is going very, very well. Some of that is due to the stuff we talked about earlier and for other reasons like the stadium expansion and enthusiasm of this staff. And, a lot is due to Ruff. Ruff is a great recruiter… he really is, and knows kids. We have a lot of strong recruiters on this staff who have gotten out there and are working it. They have been at it now for two years and we are seeing the results this year. Things are good for us and we are hoping we can hold this class together, because it is a real, real good one as it is shaping up.

E-mail Ron Cherubini

Ron Cherubini Archives

01/03/2012 02:39 AM


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